In 1940, the German Navy crew on board Kriegsmarine auxiliary cruiser Komet wreaked havoc on Allied merchant vessels in the Pacific. They would ultimately meet their demise in the Atlantic, but not before helping sink 41,000 tons of allied shipping in the Pacific and attacking oil storage facilities in Nauru. Unlike other Kreigsmarine raiders operating in the Pacific theater, Komet arrived undetected in the Atlantic via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) with the assistance of Soviet icebreakers. She was the last foreign ship to pass through the NSR for nearly 50 years. In 1991, just before the fall of the Soviet Union, the USSR offered to escort foreign ships through the NSR. The offer, however, fell flat for nearly another 20 years.
The Northern Sea Route, sometimes called the Northeast Passage, is the sea line of communication (SLOC) that connects Europe and Asia along the shores of Northern Russia. The passage crosses along the periphery of the Arctic Ocean and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the Northern edge of Russia. The first recorded mention of the Northern Sea Route dates to the 16th Century. However, the first successful transit of the route occurred nearly two centuries later, by Swedish mariner Baron Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1879.
Until recently, the NSR remained relatively dormant. In 2009, Beluga Shipping caused the international spotlight to reilluminate the NSR when the company’s two vessels transited this route, escorted by icebreakers. The Arctic has now become a hotbed of activity with the Kremlin investing in its own infrastructure, regulations, and icebreaker fleets while the Chinese Communist Party grows its Arctic aspirations. To ensure Arctic stability, the United States Navy should acquire a fleet of icebreakers to ensure open sea lines of communication through the NSR.
The Kremlin and the PRC
Receding ice floes and a commercial desire to decrease existing shipping route times has Arctic and “near-arctic“ nations racing for Arctic hegemony. While Russia has deployed its military to Arctic maritime chokepoints, the People’s Republic of China is racing to become a key Arctic player. In 2016, the Chinese Overseas Shipping Company (COSCO) dispatched five vessels through the NSR. COSCO’s Xia Zhi Yuan 6 sailed 8,000 fewer nautical miles and 32 days less using the NSR from Tianjin, China to Zeebrugge, Belgium than other available routes. In 2020, the Chinese deployed their second icebreaker, the Snow Dragon-2, to the NSR. According to Paul Goble, a Eurasian expert, Russians may prefer increased Chinese activity over the alternative of increased Western presence in the Arctic.
The Polar Silk Road Legalities
In 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unveiled “China’s Arctic Policy,” a white paper that detailed the CCP’s legal and commercial roadmap into the arctic. In it, the CCP reaffirmed its view of China’s inherent right to traverse the Arctic as a “near Arctic nation” and emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation in their “Polar Silk Road,” a subset of their prominent “Belt and Road Initiative.”
In the white paper, the CCP explicitly states the need to promote the construction of Arctic-capable icebreakers, highlights the importance of adherence to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and proclaims that “the freedom of navigation enjoyed by all countries… and their rights to use the Arctic shipping routes should be ensure[d].” The white paper’s terminology of explicitly using freedom of navigation instead of innocent passage highlights the nuanced legal war the CCP is currently battling. While this may seem like a superficial difference, the difference lies in the fact that ships engaged in innocent passages acknowledge the foreign government’s maritime claims whereas ships engaged in freedom of navigation could operate as if they are on the high seas or in their exclusive economic zone. The white paper also claims that “China attaches great importance to navigation security in the Arctic shipping routes,” while making no mention of the government entity charged with this duty throughout the document. Although China has made no claims in the Arctic, the United States can ill afford to let the CCP excessive maritime claims and narratives like those in the South China Sea metastasize in other regions.
Keeping the Sea Lines of Communications Open
The United States has conducted maritime operations since its inception to exercise the right of innocent passage and to “show the flag” and thereby protecting maritime rights for all nations. According to a US government official, “If you don’t periodically reaffirm your rights, you find that they’re hard to revive.” The arctic continues to be more accessible each year and, without a naval presence, the United States Navy needs to ensure the right to innocent passage has been lost through customary practice or law or unable to conduct FONOPs to contest excessive arctic claims. The NSR will continue to grow in importance as the arctic ice floes recede since it is the shortest maritime route between Europe and Asia. When compared to the Suez for transiting between Europe and China, the NSR is 40% shorter and as much as 60% shorter when compared to the African Cape Horn route. In November of 2021, NSR shipping had increased by 66% since January; by 2024, Russia is targeting 80 million tons per year.
The brief blockage and subsequent closure of the Suez Canal in March of 2021 and its rippling effects across global supply chains showed the importance of multiple open sea lines of communication, which the US Navy is charged with protecting. Russia has pursued an aggressive disinformation campaign claiming that Norwegian critical chokepoint of Svalbard resides within their internal or territorial waters, despite international law clearly conveying an opposing view. Putin’s government also claims the NSR resides solely in Russian waters. As the NSR continues to gain importance, US naval icebreakers could ensure open sea lines of communications through the NSR and assist with regional stability.
The Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter
In July of 2020, the CCP deployed their second icebreaker, Snow Dragon-2, to the Arctic which highlighted that the CCP has every intention of executing their power as a self-proclaimed “near arctic-state.” Currently, Russia has 53 icebreakers and Canada has seven, while the US has a single operational heavy icebreaker. The US Coast Guard addressed this icebreaker deficit through the Polar and Arctic Security Cutter programs, requesting three heavy Polar Security Cutters and three medium Arctic Security Cutters. (The reason Polar Security Cutters are referred to as “Polar” instead of “Arctic” is because these heavy icebreakers will be tasked with Operation Deep Freeze to support McMurdo Station in Antarctica, in addition to their Arctic duties.)
Russia has already recognized the importance of military presence in Arctic. Its navy plans to operate two militarized icebreakers by 2023 and 2024 with a third currently in construction. The return of the US Navy carriers and surface escorts to the Arctic Circle after a more than three-decade hiatus shows the recognized importance of a US Arctic naval presence as well. While the emerging Polar and Arctic Security Cutters would be appropriate for their icebreaking roles as naval escorts and have even been suggested for freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), these vessels would quickly become high demand, low density assets. Coast Guard icebreakers would have to balance the support of conventional naval surface forces abroad and arctic requirements at home over the vast 5.5 million square mile Arctic.
The NSR’s importance as a SLOC emerged during the Second World War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the NSR was all but forgotten until 2009 when the Beluga became the first ship to transit the route. Since then, the NSR has become more active, with Russia wanting a throughput of more than 80 million tons per year by 2024. While the US Coast Guard pursues their own independent program, their three planned vessels will be insufficient to cover the vast distances and ice floes that encompass the Arctic. CCP deployment of icebreakers along with Russia’s quantitative iceberg gap by orders of magnitude over the United States demand the US Navy reexamine the case for construction and operation of icebreakers in the Arctic to prevent a polar iteration of the flashpoints in the South China Sea.
Dylan “Joose” Phillips-Levine is a United States Naval Aviator currently serving with a Tactical Air Control Squadron. He has previously published commentary on maritime security issues for the Center for International Maritime Security, War on the Rocks, Strife Blog, and other outlets.
He holds a Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering from US Merchant Marine Academy, an Associates of Arts in Spanish from the Defense Language Institute, and graduated with distinction from the US Naval War College of Distance Education.